MIAMI — For reasons that perhaps cannot be refuted due to the abnormally high senior demographic that reside in it, there is a popular joke that goes across the United States saying that the real slogan of the state of Florida should be “Where America goes to die.”
All morbidness aside, the fact is that many consider the Sunshine State the quintessential place to retire, lie back, and just enjoy life surrounded by year-round warm, tropical weather.
For better or worse, American Airlines (AA/AAL) appears to be embracing this conviction quite well as of late.
The mega carrier’s Boeing 727 and Airbus A300 fleets ended their days at its Miami (MIA/KMIA) hub back in 2002 and 2009, respectively. Although it has not been officially announced, the Boeing 757 and 767 fleets seem to be headed for the same fate, with the bulk of the remaining operations for both types being concentrated around Miami.
The notable exception to the trend is the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 fleet, which has not seen scheduled services to Miami since 2006 and typically only shows up a couple of times a year as a last-minute replacement.
However, for many in the aviation community, the Miami hub has become known as the place where AA relegates its older fleets on their way to retirement. Other hubs like Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), and Los Angeles (LAX) boasted the launch of new fleet types with updated products like the Boeing 787, 777-300(ER), Airbus A319 and A321. None of which were launched to or from the Miami hub.
Although in all fairness the latter three types have been well integrated with the MIA operation for a couple of years already, bringing it up to the current AA standard and having nothing to envy the other hubs.
Given these trends, it certainly came as a surprise when, back in August, American announced that the airline’s first scheduled Boeing 737 MAX 8 flight would take place from MIA to New York-LaGuardia Airport (LGA) on November 29.
From that day and until December 14, the airline will operate three daily roundtrips between MIA and LGA. Also surprisingly, the inaugural flight would take place weeks before the carrier previously reported, stating that the 737 MAX would enter service in early 2018.
The Boeing 737 MAX 8 Order
American Airlines made history on July 20, 2011, by making the most significant commercial aircraft order in the history of aviation by the number of planes: 260 Airbus and 200 Boeing aircraft.
Of the Boeing order, 100 aircraft were 737 MAX 8 and two months ago, on September 28, the airline took delivery of its first MAX (N324RA • MSN 6515), from Boeing Field to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where American’s primary maintenance base is located. N324RA joined 301 standard 737-800s in the AA fleet.
In the time frame between the first delivery and first scheduled flight, a second MAX (N304RB • MSN 6675) was delivered to the airline, and two more are expected to join the fleet before the end of the year.
In 2018, 16 aircraft will be delivered and starting 2019 American expects to receive the remaining 737 MAX 8s at a rate of 20 aircraft per year. Additionally, the airline still expects three remaining standard 737-800s to be delivered, also part of the July 2011 order.
As the airline accelerates the retirement of its aging MD-80 fleet as well as the older Airbus A320 fleet, the new 737 MAX 8 will allow them to replace them with a much more efficient aircraft with a very similar capacity as part of their fleet renewal strategy.
As mentioned by Edward Russel on FlightGlobal, American plans to retire 48 Airbus A320s in the early 2020s and the remaining 46 MD-80s by 2019 while it simultaneously takes delivery of the 737 MAX fleet as well as 100 Airbus A321neo whose delivery was deferred until 2019.
American, however, has not mentioned how many 737 MAX will replace older aircraft and how many will be used for additional growth.
The MAX crowds America’s skies
Although American is one of the first Boeing 737 MAX operators worldwide, Southwest and WestJet have already beat the airline as first MAX operators in North America.
In scheduled service since October 1, Southwest has already taken delivery of 12 737 MAX 8s. WestJet, on the other hand, introduced the aircraft into scheduled service on November 9th and currently operates four frames.
Other airlines that, as of today, already operates the 737 MAX in schedule service include Norwegian, Air China, SilkAir, flydubai, Hainan Airlines, Lion Air, and Malindo Air, the latter being the launch customer of the type, entering service back on May 18th.
Additionally, Aerolineas Argentinas and Air Canada have also taken delivery of the MAX recently and are set to begin scheduled services soon.
American Airlines and the 737 MAX 8
The American 737 MAX 8 features a 172-seat configuration, with 16 first class seats and 156 economy class seats.
In a controversial move, the airline decided to increase the density of the 737 MAX in relation to the 737-800, decreasing the legroom from 31″ to 30″ and increasing the seat count by 12 seats, from 160 to 172.
Additionally, the 737 MAX will not feature seat-back entertainment, and instead, free streaming would be offered on the passengers’ devices.
In exchange, American will be introducing ViaSat WiFi that, compared to the current Gogo WiFi, the airline claims represents an improvement in connectivity and allows for the use of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.
The airline announced in January that all narrowbody aircraft featuring seatback entertainment would eventually be reconfigured without them, with the exception of the A321 fleet used on the New York – Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes and the Legacy AA Airbus A319s, following the steps of United in removing seat-back entertainment in favor of online streaming services.
Besides, American also announced that the existing 737-800 fleet would also be reconfigured with time to feature the new 172-seat configuration.
The cabin configuration of the American 737 MAX, as expected, was not received very well by the flying public, especially when a specific Atlanta-based airline seems to be doing the very opposite of what AA is doing: enhancing passenger comfort by implementing top-notch infight entertainment and increased legroom.
While there is no doubt that the 737 MAX represents a potential money-making machine for American, there is also no doubt that part of that potential will come at the expense of passenger comfort and overall product
Flying the inaugural AA 737 MAX 8 flight
When I was offered the opportunity to be part of the inaugural I was undeniably very excited. My expectations, however, were not that high.
In addition to the controversial uber-dense cabin configuration that had made the airline’s 737 MAXs infamous before they even began flying, American had made no mention of the inaugural 737 MAX flight across their social media platforms, and with a 07:00 am departure I was certainly not expecting a party or any significant celebration.
It would most likely be something very modest with not a lot of fanfare. However, there is always that special feeling of being on an aircraft’s first flight, and marking the beginning of a new chapter in the narrow body timeline of American with the latest generation of aviation technology means a historic day in the history of the airline nevertheless, dreadful cabin configuration or not.
As usual, when I have an early morning flight, I could not sleep the night before. I sleeplessly arrived at MIA slightly after 04:00 am, still three hours before the fligh was scheduled to depart.
Flight AA1292 to LaGuardia was scheduled to depart from gate D36, and I was fully expecting to see N234RA be resting at the stand, as it was the aircraft scheduled for our flight only a couple of hours earlier, according to the MIA webfids.
However, upon a closer look I found out N234RA had been replaced last minute by N304RB, the second 737 MAX delivered to American on October 11. The plane landed in Miami from Tulsa just a few hours before (N234RA had been in Miami for a couple of days already) and was now chosen to operate the maiden 737 MAX voyage for the airline.
As expected, there was not a sign of festivity at the gate, which at that time, except for a couple of people, remained entirely empty.
After a few minutes of grabbing a bite for breakfast and doing some walking around MIA’s huge concourse D, D36 began filling with passengers. Among them many fellow AvGeeks who also wanted to be part of the milestone and were easily identified by taking pictures of the aircraft type on the flight information screen.
It was not until just a few minutes before the preboarding announcements were made that AA staff arrived at the gate with balloons and made the ambiance somewhat festive.
However, as it turned out, that was pretty much the extent of the celebration as far as the departure goes. Everything else seemed routine, like with any other flight.
Before the boarding commenced, media representatives were given the opportunity to take a look inside the aircraft and take a few pictures.
We were greeted at the door L1 by Gretchen and Ronny, two cheerful cabin crew members who posed for the cameras and seemed happy to be on the first AA 737 MAX flight. We were handed nice 737 MAX stickers.
First impressions of the aircraft were pleasant. The new airplane smell permeated the entire cabin, and there was no doubt that we were on a brand new aircraft. However, except the Dreamliner-like cockpit, the rest of the cabin was no different than any other 737 featuring Boeing’s Sky Interior.
After taking a few pictures of the new screenless seats and having a nice little chat with the excited First Officer, Monica Svensson, I made my way to my seat, 18F.
Legroom is—and will be—an issue
Now, I am a short 5’7″-tall guy, so seat pitch has never really been an issue for me. But after becoming somewhat accustomed to flying on American’s A321Bs and newer 737-800s, which feature some of the most comfortable narrowbody cabins in the continent, the new seats made a clear impression, and not necessarily a good one.
In addition to the lack of seatback entertainment (instead featuring a tablet-holder), the seats were clearly slimmer and not as comfortable, so while I love the previous generation of seats, I would not want to spend a long flight seated on the new ones.
Unfortunately, it will become harder to avoid once more 737 MAXs are delivered and deployed on longer routes (not to mention the planned densification of the entire existing 737-800 fleet).
In fact, starting June 7, 2018, American will deploy the 737 MAX on the DFW – Anchorage (ANC) route, which is one of the most extended domestic segments of the airline’s network.
I, for once, would not want to be stuck in those seats on a flight that long. While much shorter in flight length than DFW-ANC, the 737 MAX has also been scheduled on the MIA – Orlando (MCO) and Port of Spain (POS) routes starting February 14, 2018.
The cabin became filled little by little and by 07:00 am door L1 was closed, 5 minutes ahead of our 07:05 am STD.
While I was expecting the flight to be fully packed, I noticed that at least the middle seat in the row in front of mine remained empty. Not sure if any other seats remained unoccupied.
Gretchen cheerfully welcomed us aboard flight 1292 to LGA and gave a few details about our flight: 2 hours and 27 minutes, flying at an altitude of 37,000 feet, and a beautiful 50-degree, sunny weather welcoming us in New York.
However, other than vaguely mentioning that we were on a brand new aircraft, there was no direct mention of the 737 MAX or the maiden flight at all, which was disappointing.
As we pushed back, the lack of water cannon salute also added to the disappointment. One would think that at least that gesture would be given, as water cannon salutes seem to happen on most special flights regardless of nature, at least at MIA. But there was nothing; it was just another routine flight on the busy South Florida-New York City pair.
As we taxied to Runway 08R the lack of noise in comparison the older 737 variants became very noticeable and pleasant. As the AA 737 MAX features no screens whatsoever, logically there was no safety video to be played, and the cabin crew gave all safety announcements and demonstrations.
Talk about jumping back in time and putting the huge efforts the airline did in producing its all-new safety video in late 2016 to waste.
As we got near the runway, the lights were dimmed with a pinkish mood lighting which remained on until final descent. Captain Steve Efken gave us a brief welcome and announced that we were seventh in line for takeoff, again without any mention of the 737 MAX or the fact that it was the inaugural flight.
We quietly rolled down Runway 08R and rotated at 07:21 am, heading northbound for New York.
Testing the only entertainment on board
I decided to check out the supposedly-improved ViaSat gate-to-gate WiFi connectivity that the 737 MAX features.
First impressions were good. As it turns out, WiFi connection was complimentary for the entire duration of the flight, which was a delightful surprise. This, however, will only be for a limited time before rates are implemented.
I assume that being a new system they want to have as much feedback as possible during the first few days to identify and correct any potential glitches, and what better way to get tons of feedback than making it free.
After testing the connection on my iPhone, I took out my laptop (uncomfortably enough due to the tightness of the seat pitch, by the way) to test how it performs on it. While the AA content streamed pretty well, I also tried streaming Netflix, and it did not perform nearly as good.
Additionally, the lack of any flight map was very disappointing from an aviation enthusiast point of view.
About one hour into the flight and after a few minutes of testing the WiFi connection, it began failing. I lost connection on both phone and laptop for a good 30 minutes, and after troubleshooting it many times, I was able to gain connectivity once again albeit an extremely slow one.
I was no longer able to stream video (Neither on AA’s streaming platform nor on Netflix), upload pictures on social media, use real-time flight-tracking apps, or have an optimal WiFi to load anything else without having to reset the connection every three minutes for the entire remaining duration of the flight.
While I fully understand that being the first flight the system is much more likely than ever to experience glitches, it was still a bummer.
As a result of the glitchy WiFi and out of boredom, I decided to check out the rear lavatories. As expected due to the densification of the cabin, these were extremely small and uncomfortable to use. Even as a petit man, I had a hard time using it. And so small that even with a fish-eye lens I was still unable to get a full picture.
Moving on to the in-flight service
Next up: the service, which on this flight consisted of beverages and just beverages. Not even mini pretzels, not even peanuts. Nothing else. Nada.
The Buy-on-board menu usually present in the seat pocket of most American Airlines narrowbodies was missing from the aircraft. While the screenless seats and tight pitch were already expected, the complete lack of snacks was not something I thought we were going to come across.
I would like to think that the reason for this was some miscoordinated logistics and not that, on the other hand, it is part of the grand low-costification scheme of the AA narrowbody product that so far seems to be the prominent theme in the 737 MAX.
I have to mention, however, that the cabin crew remained attentive and friendly throughout the entire flight. Credit when credit is due. While cabin crew on AA tends to be a hit or miss on average, it was not the case with this one.
At around 09:15 am the crew announced our descent into LaGuardia, where we touched down on Runway 22 at 09:49 am, a few minutes ahead of our 10:03 am ETA.
Gretchen thanked us for choosing American and hoped we had an enjoyable inaugural flight on the 737 MAX, finally mentioning the occasion for the first time.
Many of the passengers responded by clapping, at which time Ronny came on the PA and asked for a bigger applause to celebrate the event, which was a nice touch by the cabin crew after all. However, just like on the departure, there was no water cannon to greet us upon our arrival.
We arrived at LGA’s Gate D5 at 09:53, where N304RB was going to be turned around for its return flight to Miami at 11:00 am with the same flight number, the second of three flights scheduled for the aircraft on November 29.
MAX for Max Capacity, Max Disappointment?
Just like that, with a much lower profile than when the airline launched flights to Cuba and going almost unnoticed, the Boeing 737 MAX has joined the American Airlines fleet.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the flying public will let the tight seat pitch, lack of seat-back/drop-down screens, and overall cramping of personal space go unnoticed.
In essence, the introduction of Boeing’s newest single-aisle improvement could definitely keep the airline’s finances in the black. But the fact that they decided to keep the event under the radar suggests that the introduction of its new onboard passenger experience package will be camouflaged as days go by.
For regular American Airlines passengers, however, downgrading from the current 737 configuration onto the more tight, dense and screen-less 737s will surely become a factor of nuisance.
It would also be interesting to see the percentage of passengers on any given route carrying tablets or laptops to take advantage of the “upgraded” internet connectivity the airline claims to have fitted on the MAX planes.
Therefore, those God-forsaken passengers who don’t carry a device with them on that super-long DFW-ANC flight will undoubtedly have a MAX experience that will be hard to forget. Just like this inaugural. Unforgettable.